Ask an art lover to name Japanese women artists active before the 20th century, and chances are they’ll draw a blank, despite the fact that many highly accomplished women were painting in far-earlier times.
Fortunately, there is now rising interest in understanding the lives and work of these women, as evidenced by a pair of linked exhibitions running in Tokyo through June 21: “Uemura Shoen and Splendid Japanese Women Artists,” at the Yamatane Museum of Art, and “Splendid Japanese Women Artists in the Edo Period,” at the Kosetsu Memorial Museum on the campus of Jissen Women’s University in Shibuya. Together, they showcase the work of more than 40 Japanese women painters born in the 17th to 19th centuries.
Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) artist Shoen Uemura (1875-1949) gets top billing at the Yamatane’s show, and not only because her lyrical bijinga (beautiful women paintings) are such an automatic draw for modern museum goers. Uemura is without question an important figure in the history of Japanese women artists in that she achieved an unprecedented level of recognition within her lifetime.
She was just one of two women appointed as official artist to the Imperial Household and also the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture for her contributions to Japanese art. While giving Uemura her full due — the museum holds a particularly large number of her works, all 18 of which are on display — the Yamatane’s show, and to an even greater degree the related exhibition at the Kosetsu Memorial Museum, also provide a welcome opportunity to learn about much lesser-known artists.
In Japan, painting had long been considered a desirable accomplishment for the cultured woman. Brushes and other painting supplies were often part of the sumptuous konrei chōdo (bridal furnishing set) that an upper-class woman would take with her when she married. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), many women were able to paint in private or in the company of close friends, but because women did not have educational opportunities outside of the home, it was difficult for even very talented women to progress in their art.
The exceptions were the wives and daughters of painters who could study with trained artists without needing to venture outside the proper confines of their homes. Very few of these women advanced to become recognized, working artists in their own right.
One relatively well-known example is Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643-82), whose father and grandfather were artists of the famous Kano school of painting. She carried on the school’s traditions, reworking traditional themes in a personal manner, and eventually earned an artist’s name within the school as well as important commissions. A pair of her screens, “Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons,” (late 17th-early 18th century), is being shown publicly for the very first time as part of the Kosetsu Memorial Museum’s exhibition. Other early artists introduced include Akenomiya Teruko (1634-1727), who was a member of the Imperial family, while among the later Edo Period artists featured are Tokuyama Gyokuran (1727/8-84) and Ema Saiko (1787-1861).
By the 19th century, opportunities for women began to increase. A list of women artists compiled in 1858 recorded some 80 women painters active all around the country. The Yamatane’s exhibition includes important works by this new wave of women artists, including “Scenes of Hakone,” a pair of six-fold screens by Shohin Noguchi (1847-1917) that is considered one of her masterpieces. Noguchi was the only woman other than Uemura to serve as artist to the Imperial Household, receiving her appointment in 1904. Other examples of her work on view include Chinese-style landscapes as well as several flowers-and-birds paintings. Lesser known artists introduced include Kyosui Kawanabe (1868-1935), Shoha Ito (1877-1968), Takeko Kujo (1887-1928) and Seien Shima (1892-1970).
Some women were able to pursue artistic careers while maintaining traditional roles of wife and mother, but others led highly unconventional lives. Uemura, for example, never married and had a son whom she raised on her own. In 1871, when the Meiji government advised samurai to cut off their distinctive top-knots, Seiko Okuhara (1837-1913), a painter of samurai descent, dispensed with her own long hair even though the edict didn’t apply to women. She kept her hair short and lived the rest of her life dressing only in men’s clothing.
The Yamatane Museum of Art and Kosetsu Memorial Museum are located about 10 minutes apart on foot, so both exhibitions can be easily visited in the space of an afternoon. The sheer range of talented artists introduced, as well as the varied and unique ways in which they approached the timeless themes of nature and beauty, make them highly enjoyable, while also an important step in advancing research on women artists.
“Uemura Shoen and Splendid Japanese Women Artists” at the Yamatane Museum of Art runs till June 21; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.yamatane-museum.jp. “Splendid Japanese Women Artists in the Edo Period” at the Kosetsu Memorial Museum, also runs till June 21; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Closed Mon. www.jissen.ac.jp/kosetsu. N.B.: The Japan Times style renders Japanese names of artists active after the Edo Period in Western order.